Thursday, 30 December 2010

Records of the Year

From the huge amount of music released this year, only the tiniest fraction of which I actually heard, here are my favourites, in no particular order:

Field Music Measure
The Besnard Lakes ...Are the Roaring Night
Soundcarriers Celeste
Asaf Sirkis Trio Letting Go
Jane Weaver and Septieme Soeur The Fallen By Watch Bird
The Fall Your Future Our Clutter

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Ghost story at Christmas

Note to those at the BBC who made' Whistle and I'll come to you', starring John Hurt and shown last night on Christmas Eve. If you're basing a drama on a very well-known short story ('Oh whistle and I'll come to you my lad') by one of the masters of the genre M R James, it's probably best to use the most effective elements of that tale: namely the relentless pursuit over the groynes of the beach by a mysterious figure and the final terrifying manifestation inside the bedsheets. If the film bears very little relation to the story you might have considered giving it an alternative title and then made a decent version of the original. Given that the ancient whistle found on the site of a Templar preceptory plays a major part in the story (and the title) it might have been a good idea to include it, especially as it apparently helps to 'whistle up' the wind and the apparition.

As a modern day story about the relationship of an elderly couple and the perils of Alzheimer's and loneliness it was pretty standard ghostly fare, but it could have been so much more - changing his profession from an academic to an astronomer added nothing apart from a joke about that old confusion with astrology and detracted considerably from the antiquarian bent of James's best stories. When he was booked into a double bed I pretty much gave up hope of even a vaguely faithful retelling of one of my favourite ghost stories. Despite some atmospheric moments (taken from the film The Haunting), a great disappointment. I never thought I would say this, but I much preferred the Jonathan Miller black and white interpretation with Michael Hordern.

Addendum 30 December: see also 'Who is this who is coming?' on the feuilleton blog from the list opposite

Tonight on Yesterday they are showing an entire evening of Nazi Collaborators, including a documentary on someone who ran an extermination camp in Lithuania - Merry Christmas.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

New Year Rising

Once I am, hopefully, free of the midwinter torpor, I shall be able to make some plans for next year. The next event will be a talk for the Chelsea Society on Monday 10th January, snow and Southeastern trains permitting. A further underground-themed event may take place later in the year and perhaps one of my unpublished projects may finally see the light.

Friday, 17 December 2010


An interesting article by Stewart Lee - seen him at Fall concerts but never spoken to him - on the accumulation of archives of books, records and cds. I know the problem, I'm currently debating whether to buy yet another Billy bookcase or cull my books so that I don't need to. One of the most thought-provoking art installations I ever visited was the one in an empty C&A in Oxford street where the artist Michael Landy systematically destroyed all his possessions - I went 3 times, including the final evening when the very last things got the chop. It's only comparatively recently that I've acquired a large number of cultural artefacts, many of the cds have been given to me - I would find it difficult to lose them, but not impossible, I would like to think.

Lee also makes the point that all these media can be held on a small portable device these days, if most young men even want books any more and that he feels impossibly old fashioned; I get this feeling increasingly these days. There will be a dying race insulated behind their stacks of books and records; who will bother acquiring them when they're gone? It also means that those, like me, who like to determine a stranger's tastes and personality by scanning their book and record shelves will have an increasingly frustrating time (Facebook 'favourites' are no substitute).

Bad Writing

At this dark and gloomy time of the year I need something to cheer me up. I always derive schadenfreude from bad reviews (not of my own works of course, fortunately these are few - on the rare occasions when my books are reviewed). The new Christina Aguilera vehicle Burlesque seems to be this year's Christmas Turkey in the cinema (I watched Showgirls on telly a couple of years ago and it didn't seem as awful as I had been led to expect. although there were some choice scenes, mostly involving Kyle Maclachlan).

Probably my favourite book review is this one by Philip Henscher, makes me laugh every time; the book in question was heavily hyped in advance of publication and then disappeared rapidly. So intrigued was I that I went to a bookshop and leafed through it and indeed it was difficult to find a well written sentence anywhere within it.

I strive to ensure that my books are clearly written and I spend hours rewriting and proof reading, but errors always creep in, not always of my doing. Clearly I'm not alone in finding Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code the worst written bestseller I've ever read. Even the title really annoys me - art historians have always called him Leonardo and I've never heard of a 'symbologist'. The book is littered with incorrectly used words, poor grammar and the kind of sentences that would be rejected immediately in an evening class for aspiring writers. Mind you, he's done very well from it.

The bits that still stick in my mind are the occasion when someone at Scotland Yard picks up the phone and says, 'Hello, this is the London police' and the journey south from Biggin Hill airfield to London; it also seems to have been one of the first novels where the 'research' was pasted in from Wikipedia - see the description of the Louvre for example and don't get me started on the whole Templars, Holy Grail mish mash that overturned years of careful scholarship painstakingly debunking The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail construct. He also repeated the fallacy of millions of witches being executed in Europe in the middle ages which had been refuted by numerous academic works in the last 30 years.

Another writer who really irritated me when I read one of his novels was Colin Dexter: was it the use of 'hebdomodal' instead of 'weekly', or the sickening middle brow smugness of Inspector Morse as his eye roves his bookshelves and notes the intellectual tomes on display? I am not alone, as I've found on a site dedicated to poor penmanship. A contributor offers this from The Secret of Annexe 3:

"Soon the two friends were seated facing each other in the lounge bar, the surgeon resting his heavy-looking dolichocephalic skull upon his left hand.

But these minor worries could hardly compare with the consternation caused on the Monopoly front by a swift-fingered checker-out from a Bedford supermarket whose palm was so extraordinarily speedy in the recovery of the two dice thrown from the cylindrical cup that her opponents had little option but to accept, without ever seeing the slightest evidence, her instantaneously enunciated score, and then to watch helplessly as this sharp-faced woman moved her little counter along the board to whichever square seemed of the greatest potential profit to her entrepeneurial designs.

She could recall, quite certainly, clearing away after the soup course; picking up the supernumary spoons and forks that marked the place of that pusillanimous spirit from Solihull, Doris Arkwright; standing by in the kitchen as a Pork Normandy had slithered off its plate to the floor, to be replaced thither after a perfunctory wipe; drinking a third cocktail; dancing with the Lord High Executioner; eating two helpings of the gateau in the kitchen; dancing, in the dim light of the ballroom, a sort of chiaroscuro cha-cha-cha with the mysterious 'Rastafarian' - the latter having been adjudged the winner of the men's fancy-dress prize; telling Binyon not to be so silly when he'd broached the proposition of a brief dive beneath the duvet in her temporary quarters; drinking a fourth cocktail, the colour of which she could no longer recall; feeling slightly sick; walking up the stairs to her bedroom before the singing of 'Auld Lang Syne'; feeling very sick; and finally finding herself in bed."

That sentence would put Henry James to shame. More laughs can be had by reading Dexter's author blurb; it's because of that blurb that I keep my own short. I use it as a warning against pomposity.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Santa Con

I got caught up in the Santa Con 'celebrations' in central London yesterday evening around Leicester Square. This relatively new phenomenon is yet another American import which involves hundreds of people, mainly young, dressing up as Father Christmas, getting very drunk and shouting and singing in large groups in public places. It gets a mention in my Folklore of London book in Scott Wood's epilogue - I've personally witnessed it three times now, I admire the spirit of anarchism but with the recent events in central London I wonder whether the police took a stronger stance with the revellers this year.


I read quite a bit of science fiction earlier this year. My favourites were Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds and Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatskii, the latter of course was filmed in 1979 as Stalker by Tarkovsky. Got it out from the library after reading the book and was very impressed - ok it was slow, but some of the images were stunning - especially the slow tracking shot over the water-covered floor towards the end. A moving documentary in the extras revealed that almost everyone involved with the film is dead. Thought the whole basic idea of Roadside Picnic was great - what if a vastly powerful intergalactic race just stopped off here for a quick break but left behind a contaminated area containing a collection of stunning technological wonders and deadly traps?

Obviously a lot of Ballard was devoured as well this year. For this reader much 'classic; science fiction seems very dated now or is so badly written that I just can't get into it - I wish it could be better. Apart from JGB the only other great writer I can think of in this genre is William Gibson or Burroughs if you count some of his stuff as SF - M John Harrison can also be included and mustn't forget Christopher Priest (another Hastings resident). Philip K Dick's ideas and outlook are fascinating, but I've found some of his books hard going - A Scanner Darkly is great, I thought The Man in the High Castle overrated. In some ways H G Wells has never been surpassed.

Worst book for me was one that has been voted best SF novel of all time in some places - Enders Game by Orson Scott Card - I think I'm probably 30 years too old for its thinly disguised right wing politics and queasy pseudo-mysticism that reminded me too much of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Winding down for 2010

Woke up last Wednesday to the thickest snow I have ever seen in Hastings (or the south east of England for that matter) - a foot high on the wall outside my study. Photo above taken from our front window. After a frustrating train trip (5 trains in 4 hours) last Friday I got to London for work. On my return on Saturday evening (3 trains in 4 hours) the snow had been washed away by heavy rain. The Wealds of Kent and Sussex received the worst weather.

In 2011 I intend to start up a further blog devoted to one topic and I'll try to get a few event ideas under way for the spring and summer. Any new writing will either go into the blogs or may end up in small one-off projects, given that I don't have the amount of concentrated writing time I once enjoyed.